The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 62

Gerard returned to consciousness and to despair.

On the second day he was raving with fever on the brain.

On a table hard by lay his rich auburn hair, long as a woman’s.

The deadlier symptoms succeeded one another rapidly.

On the fifth day his leech retired and gave him up.

On the sunset of that same day he fell into a deep sleep.

Some said he would wake only to die.

But an old gossip, whose opinion carried weight (she had been a professional nurse), declared that his youth might save him yet, could he sleep twelve hours.

On this his old landlady cleared the room and watched him alone. She vowed a wax candle to the Virgin for every hour he should sleep.

He slept twelve hours.

The good soul rejoiced, and thanked the Virgin on her knees.

He slept twenty-four hours.

His kind nurse began to doubt. At the thirtieth hour she sent for the woman of art.

“Thirty hours! shall we wake him?”

The other inspected him closely for some time.

“His breath is even, his hand moist. I know there be learned leeches would wake him, to look at his tongue, and be none the wiser; but we that be women should have the sense to let bon Nature alone. When did sleep ever harm the racked brain or the torn heart?”

When he had been forty-eight hours asleep, it got wind, and they had much ado to keep the curious out. But they admitted only Fra Colonna and his friend the gigantic Fra Jerome.

These two relieved the women, and sat silent; the former eyeing his young friend with tears in his eyes, the latter with beads in his hand looked as calmly on him as he had on the sea when Gerard and he encountered it hand to hand.

At last, I think it was about the sixtieth hour of this strange sleep, the landlady touched Fra Colonna with her elbow. He looked. Gerard had opened his eyes as gently as if he had been but dozing.

He stared.

He drew himself up a little in bed.

He put his hand to his head, and found his hair was gone.

He noticed his friend Colonna, and smiled with pleasure.

But in the middle of smiling his face stopped, and was convulsed in a moment with anguish unspeakable, and he uttered a loud cry, and turned his face to the wall.

His good landlady wept at this. She had known what it is to awake bereaved.

Fra Jerome recited canticles, and prayers from his breviary.

Gerard rolled himself in the bed-clothes.

Fra Colonna went to him, and whimpering, reminded him that all was not lost. The divine Muses were immortal. He must transfer his affection to them; they would never betray him nor fail him like creatures of clay. The good, simple father then hurried away; for he was overcome by his emotion.

Fra Jerome remained behind. “Young man,” said he, “the Muses exist but in the brains of pagans and visionaries. The Church alone gives repose to the heart on earth, and happiness to the soul hereafter. Hath earth deceived thee, hath passion broken thy heart after tearing it, the Church opens her arms: consecrate thy gifts to her! The Church is peace of mind.”

He spoke these words solemnly at the door, and was gone as soon as they were uttered.

“The Church!” cried Gerard, rising furiously, and shaking his fist after the friar. “Malediction on the Church! But for the Church I should not lie broken here, and she lie cold, cold, cold, in Holland. Oh, my Margaret! oh, my darling! my darling! And I must run from thee the few months thou hadst to live. Cruel! cruel! The monsters, they let her die. Death comes not without some signs. These the blind selfish wretches saw not, or recked not; but I had seen them, I that love her. Oh, had I been there, I had saved her, I had saved her. Idiot! idiot! to leave her for a moment.”

He wept bitterly a long time.

Then, suddenly bursting into rage again, he cried vehemently “The Church! for whose sake I was driven from her; my malison be on the Church! and the hypocrites that name it to my broken heart. Accursed be the world! Ghysbrecht lives; Margaret dies. Thieves, murderers, harlots, live for ever. Only angels die. Curse life! curse death! and whosoever made them what they are!”

The friar did not hear these mad and wicked words; but only the yell of rage with which they were flung after him.

It was as well. For, if he had heard them, he would have had his late shipmate burned in the forum with as little hesitation as he would have roasted a kid.

His old landlady who had accompanied Fra Colonna down the stair, heard the raised voice, and returned in some anxiety.

She found Gerard putting on his clothes, and crying.

She remonstrated.

“What avails my lying here?” said he gloomily. “Can I find here that which I seek?”

“Saints preserve us! Is he distraught again? What seek ye?”

“Oblivion.”

“Oblivion, my little heart? Oh, but y’are young to talk so.”

“Young or old, what else have I to live for?”

He put on his best clothes.

The good dame remonstrated. “My pretty Gerard, know that it is Tuesday, not Sunday.”

“Oh, Tuesday is it? I thought it had been Saturday.”

“Nay, thou hast slept long. Thou never wearest thy brave clothes on working days. Consider.”

“What I did, when she lived, I did. Now I shall do whatever erst I did not. The past is the past. There lies my hair, and with it my way of life. I have served one Master as well as I could. You see my reward. Now I’ll serve another, and give him a fair trial too.”

“Alas!” sighed the woman, turning pale, “what mean these dark words? and what new master is this whose service thou wouldst try?”

“SATAN.”

And with this horrible declaration on his lips the miserable creature walked out with his cap and feather set jauntily on one side, and feeble limbs, and a sinister face pale as ashes, and all drawn down as if by age.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33